Air travelers will see fewer flights and longer wait times in airport security lines if Congress fails to reach a spending deal by week's end, Virginia lawmakers warned Monday.
That's because the so-called sequester would force the Federal Aviation Administration to cut $600 million from its budget, resulting in employee furloughs and facility closures that could delay -- or even cancel -- thousands of daily flights, said Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va.
"Sequestration will not just impact federal employees; it will affect every American who flies for business or vacation," Moran said inside Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Monday. "We cannot allow a manufactured crisis to harm air travel."
Congress and the White House have until Friday to work out a deficit-reduction deal that would avoid the automatic across-the-board cuts of the sequester. If they fail, $85 billion must be slashed from programs by the end of September, part of a total $1.2 trillion in cuts over the next decade -- with half of it coming from the Pentagon's budget.
In the air travel industry, officials estimate the automatic cuts will lead to an 11-day furlough of each of the FAA's 47,000 employees, as well as furloughs of up to 2,200 air-traffic controllers and 50,000 TSA officers. Their absence will cause passengers to wait an extra hour or longer in lines, officials said.
The cuts will also cost 2,750 customs officers and 5,000 Border Patrol agents their jobs, boosting the wait times of international travelers to three or more hours, lawmakers said.
"This adds up to less security at our airports, longer wait times for travelers and lost economic opportunities," said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. "This can be averted. This should be averted."
Moran, Connolly and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., each called on their colleagues in Congress to reach an agreement that would avert the planned spending cuts that lawmakers and President Obama put in place two years ago to give themselves an incentive to reach a deal that would reduce the federal deficit.
In Virginia alone, the automatic budget cuts would cost the state $14 million in funding for primary and secondary education, reduce the number of students receiving aid for work-study programs and force 90,000 civilian Department of Defense employees to be furloughed, reducing their total pay by $648.4 million, White House data show.
Still, officials say sequestration's impact to FAA operations could be seen the quickest, possibly hitting as early as April.
"The impact of sequestration cannot be underestimated," said Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president for the Air Line Pilots Association International. "At the very time many of our passengers are contemplating their next business trip or family vacation, our pilots are looking at a future in which they will have no other choice than to leave those passengers stranded at the gate."